One Flew Over the Receptionist’s Desk

First, it should be noted I have signed non-disclosure agreements at many offices in New York City as occasionally I am privy to sensitive financial information not intended for public knowledge.  I always joke with the compliance departments (some of whom laugh and others who seem to have lost their sense of humour the minute they donned their first blazers) at these financial institutions that as a twenty-five year old actor who has never had any wealth whatsoever to “manage,”

"Greed...is good.  And so are my fancy-ass suspenders and slick-backed hair."

“Greed…is good. And so are my fancy-ass suspenders and slick-backed hair.”

I wouldn’t even know what to DO with the kinds of stock or bank information I MIGHT happen to see or hear about other than to do my best Gordon Gekko impersonation and slimily say, “Greed…is good.”  I didn’t know how to manage and sell my TY Beanie Baby collection at the “prime market time,” so I’d say that’s a good indicator I probably also wouldn’t know how to buy or sell stocks at the right time either.  All this is to say I am trusted to maintain some sense of security and professionalism in all the financial institutions in which I so often do temporary work.

As a receptionist, you are the gatekeeper (“Are you the Keymaster?”) to the company both physically and telephonically, and you have the power to grant or decline entry to people’s offices and phone lines.  I am so accustomed to answering phones and greeting guests at so many offices around the city, I’m unfazed by pretty much everything a guest or caller could throw my way, and I know all the tricks people use to try to get you to give them access to people within a company so they can harass them with sales calls, money schemes, etc.  The fact is, unless you can give me a specific first and last name of someone within a company, legally, I cannot and will not put your call through.

Who would ever slam the door in Bill Murray's face?

Who would ever slam the door in Bill Murray’s face?

(I am Dana Barrett possessed by Zeul and will slam the door in your Peter Venkman face, so to speak)

So naturally, when a young woman called the office where I am working for the next two and a half weeks and asked to speak to someone about handling her money a few days ago, I told her just that: “I’m sorry, but unless you have the name of someone in the company, I cannot put your call through.  That is company policy.”  What I did NOT expect was her to launch into a perplexing and semi-unsettling confessional of her life situation for the next ten minutes that:

  1. a) Intrigued me
  2. b) Sort of terrified me
  3. c) Made me question the validity of her claims/sanity
  4. d) Led me to look her up on Facebook/Google

Her first words after I said my spiel were, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who I am.”

So I did what any person in this situation would do which is stay silent and pray I wasn’t talking to a Moriarty or a John Doe-from-Se7en or something.

Moriarty: our favorite dreamboat consulting criminal

Moriarty: our favorite dreamboat consulting criminal

She continued, “I am about to get a LOT of money from several medical malpractice suits in St. Louis,” (SHE IS ALSO FROM MISSOURI!!!! WTF!!!) “and I don’t even know what to do with it.  I don’t want it all, just enough to give some away and take some trips and live my life and get away from all these crazy people.”

My inner monologue: Um, okay…

“I’m just kind of really overwhelmed right now, and I think my parents are hiding information from me.  They won’t tell me anything, and every time I try to ask questions, they put me in a hospital and hold pillows down over my face.  They keep admitting me to mental institutions to force me to have electroshock therapy, and this one nurse actually beat me with this leather strap.  Like, with serious intent to harm.  I’m not crazy.  I have a really high IQ.”

Just like Sherlock?  A high-functioning sociopath?

I wanna 221B with you, Sherlock.

I wanna 221B with you, Sherlock.

“I don’t even think they’re my parents, like I don’t belong to them.  My family has forced me to be on my own.  I don’t really have anyone to go to, and I really need financial advice, but I can’t ask my parents because they keep sending me to hospitals to have electroshock or make me take pills.  I’m not crazy.  I just have a really high IQ.  And I’m young, so I don’t know how to handle all these millions of dollars I’m about to get in settlements.  My lawyers, which are some of the best settlement lawyers in St. Louis have been investigating and trying to get answers from my parents, but I just don’t really know who I am, and I’m alone.  I am investigating everything and trying to get names, but it’s such a slow process.  I need help, and I don’t know where to go.”

I seized the minuscule pause in her oration to try to regain control and courteously end the conversation.

“Well, unfortunately, I’m just not allowed to connect you to anyone within the company without proper identification.  If you can do some more investigating with your lawyers and call back with a name, we’re very happy to be of help to you.  Good luck with everythi-”

She cut me off, “I’m sorry to cut you off, and I know you are trying to help, but I just want to explain that my parents are hiding things from me and making it difficult for me to get the information I need.  But I’m going to get millions of dollars, and I’m just so lost and overwhelmed and I need help.  I married into a crazy, weird family, and they all think I’m crazy and keep trying to hurt me to keep me quiet.  And my town is the same way; it’s small and weird and there’s all these secrets and lies, and it’s like everyone is against me.  I’m not crazy.  I have a really high IQ.  All I want is someone to help me manage the money I’m getting because I don’t know who I am and how to do anything.  I really don’t want it all, just enough to give some away and take some trips and live my life and get away from all these crazy people.  I’m doing investigations and trying to get names, but it’s such a long process.  And my parents have forced me into hospitals where the nurses, many of whom are African American…”

Oh lord.  Another race issue in St. Louis…and secrets and lies?  What is this, Twin Peaks?!

Twin Peaks-era Kyle McLachlan looks as confused as I felt during that phone call

Twin Peaks-era Kyle McLachlan looks as confused as I felt during that phone call

“…and they hurt me and kept trying to make me forget who I am.  My parents are trying to like, brainwash me and make me forget who I am and what I’m trying to do, and all I want is to get away from them and make all this stop.  They’re trying to make me forget things because they’re hiding things from me.  Maybe they’re scared because I’m going to have a lot of money from these settlements, but I don’t know.  I’ll definitely be calling back.  I don’t know when but when I get more information, I’ll call you.”

“Yes, have your lawyers do some investigations and we’ll be happy to help you when you have a little more information.”

I was doing EVERYTHING in my receptionist playbook to try to get her the hell off my phone, because I was really beginning to feel uneasy the longer our conversation continued and the more she kept reiterating she “wasn’t crazy” and just had a “really high IQ.”  I felt as though her extreme paranoia was radiating through the wires of our telephones.  What if all this was some elaborate ruse?  Was she really mentally unstable?  At this point, I still am not sure whether she was telling the truth or not.  Crazy people don’t realize they’re crazy, you know?  Or at least, most don’t.  I could tell just from her voice she believed what she was saying and had convinced herself of the story; there was adamant conviction behind her words.

And I sensed that perhaps the help she needed more than anything was someone to LISTEN to her without judgment or interjection.  We all so desperately long at times to have our voices heard by another so we can purge ourselves of thoughts and words weighing on our bodies and especially our minds.  It can be absolutely maddening when you are speaking and feel as though no one is listening, and while I was uneasy with her confession, I realized this might be the only thing I could do for her: provide an ear and supportive silence.  If her stories really WERE true and she was a girl interrupted, she could either be a Lisa or a Susanna.  I hoped she was the latter.

Are you more Winona or Angie?

Are you more Winona or Angie?

My silence must have satiated her for the time being, because she finally said, “I’m sorry for throwing all this at you, but I just feel alone.  Thank you for listening to all this.  I will get more information and call you back at some point.  Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.  I hope you get the answers you need.”

As I finally placed the phone back on the receiver, I wondered aloud, “WHAT just happened?”  Could she have been telling the truth?  Her story seemed like something out of the Lois Duncan suspense novels I used to read as a teen; you know, Summer of Fear, Stranger With My Face and all that.  Or Gillian Flynn’s novels.  Or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

She gave me her full name, so I looked her up on Facebook just to see if I could glean any information about who she really is.  She’s a beautiful girl, probably around my age, and seems normal-ish in photos.  I will probably never know if what she said really happened or if her sanity IS intact, but I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt…because I gave it to R.P. McMurphy and Susanna Kaysen.

The Thankful Challenge: Day 7 & 8

7

Gusty winds.  Freezing temperatures.  Heavy snowfall.  Work at Jacob Javits Center for eleven hours?  There’s no way I was going to walk five avenues in a nor’easter after work to catch my subway in Herald Square.  Outside, it looked like the beginning of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer where claymation snowman Burl Ives is talking about that horrible blizzard that nearly cancelled Christmas.

When my life is made into a movie, I want Burl Ives’s claymation snowman to narrate

Okay, it wasn’t quite THAT bad; I’m exaggerating a bit, but it WAS frigid and the snow was blowing all around.

Luckily, the Javits Center runs free shuttle buses to several hotels for conference attendees.  I say “luckily,” but really those buses are necessary since Jacob Javits is located in the armpit of New York along 11th avenue, and no visitor in their right minds should be forced to walk from that wasteland of auto body shops, construction sites, and other general eyesores back to where civilization begins again on 9th avenue.  So to prevent a walk through a decidedly un-magical version of Narnia in the cold, which would have been miserable, I hopped aboard one of the free shuttle buses.

I’m definitely thankful for that free shuttle bus.  It was warm, Seinfeld was playing on the TV screens, and it wound up dropping me off right by the entrance to my subway at 47th/7th, shortening my commute considerably.  If only a happy snowman Burl Ives had been there to serenade me, it would have been the perfect way to finish up a very, very long day.

8

Despite my total and utter loathing of the Jacob Javits Center and all that working there every so often entails, I’m thankful for a lot of the people I’ve met who are working alongside me.  Normally when I temp, I work in office buildings and get to know some of the people there, but I’m basically left alone most of the day.  When I work events and trade shows, I get to work with lots of other temps my age (or even a little older) who are all usually actors or dancers or artsy types.  Because of that, I’ve gotten to know and actually become pretty good friends with a lot of those people.  I see them at auditions or we hang out.  They’re interesting and come from all over the world.  My work friends make being at Jacob Javits Center or the U.S. Open or whatever a little less awful.  It’s nice knowing I’ll see so many familiar faces every day when I walk through the door.  Events are not really my favorite thing in the world to work, but it’s consecutive days of a decent paycheck, so having good people around me to ease the pains of being a “temp slave” is most welcome.

How Being a Temp(orary Receptionist) Has Helped My Acting

I spend, on average, 20+ hours a week answering phones, sending emails, delivering packages, and re-stocking fridges in office buildings all around the great City of New York.  I have worked for Barnes & Noble Headquarters, NASCAR, Grey advertising, Patek Philippe, and tons of fairly prestigious financial investment firms.  And while I haven’t had say, an actual professional acting gig yet, I consider many of my temp jobs as an opportunity to hone my acting skills and use them on a day-to-day basis.

You might say then that I do, in fact, act 20+ hours a week as well.

So how exactly has being a temp helped my acting (other than padding my bank account and keeping a roof over my head)?  Let’s take a look.

The receptionist is the first point of contact for all guests, which means it’s vitally important to make a good first impression so every guest feels welcome throughout the duration of their visit to the office (and also doesn’t think ill of the company).  That means offering a smile, a seat, something to drink, and taking their coat.  Above all, the receptionist offers respect.  Most days, I am perfectly friendly and have no trouble greeting people, but like any normal person, I occasionally have days when I would prefer to be anywhere but the office and not have to interact with anyone.  As an actor, it’s important to be respectful of everyone around you from your fellow actors to the crew to the director to the audience, much like being a receptionist.  And even if you aren’t feeling up to the part (at least emotionally; sickness is a different issue), you still have to perform at one-hundred percent no matter what else is going on in your life.  You owe that to everyone around you, especially when they’ve brought their A-game.

Answering and transferring phone calls is a big portion of any reception job.  Again, it’s important to be friendly, but it’s even more important to speak clearly and to listen well.  So much weight in acting training is put upon all the complexities of various methods from Stanislavsky to Meisner, etc, that many actors forget the simplest, most significant part of acting: listening and responding with clarity.  What’s the point of living in the woods with nothing but prospecting tools from the 1880s and the clothes on your back as “Method research” for your character if you don’t bother to really listen to those around you and speak clearly and accurately?  When I answer the phone, I really attempt to listen hard to what the person on the other end is saying and then do my best to speak as clearly as I can so they know what’s going on or get the answer they’re looking for.  In turn, I’ve learned to be an even better listener (and have proper diction when speaking!), which is not only good for my acting, but just in life in general.

Being a temp is basically being a substitute teacher for offices.  I’m very lucky to often be asked back to offices in which I’ve previously worked, but I frequently am going to new places, which means I have to jump right into things quickly and often learn on the job.  Having to leap without looking can be scary, but it forces you to be confident with your choices and think on your feet.  It goes without saying that acting sometimes requires improvisation and always requires confidence and a commitment to making bold choices.  Because of temp-ing I have learned how to adapt myself quickly to new work environments and protocols and be more confident with my choices.  If I make a mistake, I don’t beat myself up, I just learn how to fix it and move on with my day, without anguishing over the fact I didn’t do everything perfect.  The goal is always to make as few mistakes as possible and make everyone else’s day go as smoothly as if the real receptionist were there.  Being confident also means not being afraid of asking questions.  If you don’t know the answer to something, just ask.  I’m a big proponent of asking questions, because I feel it’s part of my job to try to understand as much as I can about what’s going on around me (also highly important in acting).  I’m always surprised by how many people are too proud to admit they don’t know everything, so they never ask questions, fearing it will make them look unconfident or stupid or assuming people don’t want to help them.  This is totally wrong.  I’ve yet to meet a single person in one of my workplaces who doesn’t want to help my day go smoother by answering a few questions.  Ask and ye shall receive, kids.

So to re-cap, these things apply to both Temp Work AND Acting: 

  1. Show respect to those around you by being friendly and giving 100% at all times.
  2. Really listen to people and respond clearly.
  3. Be confident and make strong choices.
  4. Don’t agonize over making mistakes; fix them and move on.
  5. Be adaptable.
  6. Ask questions!
  7. Learn as much as you can about your role and what’s going on around you.

Apply these to your life (and acting if applicable), and I promise you’ll see instant, positive results!